Hood Canal deals with 'dead zone'

Concern about the oxygen levels in Hood Canal will receive legislative attention this session, as a bill’s sponsors seek to turn the region into a special “aquatic rehabilitation zone.”

“We pass watershed laws that are fine for one location but not another,” said 35th District Rep. Bill Eickmeyer, sponsor of House Bill 1060.

“What’s good for Hood Canal won’t be right for Moses Lake,” he said. “As a fjord, Hood Canal has always been more fragile. It’s a different piece of water and needs to be treated accordingly.”

A fjord has a deep middle surrounded by shallower spots. Its structure can restrict water circulation, and it can take Hood Canal a year for water to be completely replenished.

Additionally, the water in the deep areas has little or no oxygen and cannot sustain life. And when the wind pushes the water around this “dead zone,” it can temporarily extend to the shallower areas.

“All of a sudden, a fish can’t breathe,” said retired environmental engineer Bob Benze. “And they don’t know if they just swim a little way the water will be fine. Their brains aren’t built that way.”

The situation is getting a lot of attention and the Kitsap County Health District is set to begin testing the water between the Mason County line and north of Seabeck.

Meanwhile, a three-year University of Washington study will create complex models of the area to determine the cause and effect of the dead zones.

But local residents like Benze are hoping the government will not rush ahead into a ill-conceived solution.

And it looks like he will have a chance to speak his mind. Eickmeyer said the House Select Committee on Hood Canal, which he chairs, will solicit testimony from all quarters before deciding what kind of regulation is needed to preserve this sensitive ecological area.

The most important question is determining the cause of the low-oxygen problem. Many assume negative environmental impact is attributable to human influence, but that’s not a conclusion Benze and other scientists are willing to take on faith.

“Deep waters like Hood Canal are typically anoxic,” he said. “Scientists looking back to the 1950s and earlier tell us that the ‘dead zone’ is a natural, cyclical phenomenon. It may be deteriorating in southern Hood Canal and could be influenced by human activities. However, the actual impact from human sources remains unknown.”

The Health District’s efforts are threefold — to locate and correct failing septic systems causing pollution, to provide workshops for local residents on how to prevent bacterial contamination and to explore the relationship between bacteria and contamination.

By testing waters along the target area, the district will be able to determine and pinpoint faulty septic systems, then provide the resources to fix each one.

“We don’t know what the causes are,” said Health District’s Leslie Banigan. “But we will be able to provide the tools in order for people to take preventive measures.”

Benze lauds the Health District for its efforts, saying they will certainly save some shellfish beds. However, he doubts fixing septic systems will do much to alleviate the oxygen problem.

Benze fears the Legislature will impose regulations that will be impossible to undo.

Instead of rushing to judgment, he would like to first see the results of the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program, a study that will use complicated computer models — possibly those Benze helped to develop — to study water patterns and topographical anomalies.

“We hear dire predictions from elected officials that all species in the canal, even those who require only a small level of dissolved oxygen, are threatened with irrecoverable extinction,” he said. “Such statements have little basis in scientific fact, but are intended to stampede the public into immediate action.”

While the committee may not wait for the final results to take action, Eickmeyer said it will plug into the latest data from that source.

He also says it’s possible there will be no immediate action, as Benze recommends.

“That project will make a presentation to the committee,” he said. “We want to hear all of the testimony. But even if we get all the testimony, it may not be conclusive in providing a plan of action.”

Benze expects people seeking an immediate solution will be intolerant of his wait-and-see attitude.

“We don’t need a new set of regulations,” Benze said. “There is the idea that the health of Puget Sound is getting worse. That’s not true. It’s generally improved over the last few years.”

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